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Crystal grazing: Café food trends for 2018

1. Walk the talk
Farmer with a basket of fresh produce

Once, you’d only talk about ‘provenance’ or the origin of something when you went antique furniture shopping. Now it comes up in conversations about toast, avocado, beef, chicken and eggs. And milk. Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, so when you buy direct from farmers or backyard growers, which Sydney’s Cornersmith do, you can pass that information onto your customer. Espressohead in Byron Bay, NSW, list all the farmers they deal with on blackboard and Sydney Chef and restaurateur Neil Perry has long made it a practice to name the producers he works with on his menu. So, if you’re buying tomatoes from the Italian grower down the road or harvesting your herbs from the pots by the kitchen door, tell everyone. “There’s a story to be told,” says Unilever Food Solutions Executive Chef Mark Baylis. And it all adds up to a feel-good connection.

2. Bowl food
Bowl food

Breakfast bowls, smoothie bowls, Hawaiian poké bowls, salad bowls, dinner bowls… you can’t go wrong with one of these all-in-one meals. The bowl has many advantages: it’s easily constructed (creativity rules), easily changed (for variety) and easily adapted (to everyone’s individual taste and preference). And nowhere is the bowl more suited than on the café menu. Start the day with either a brekky green smash of cooked kale, broccoli, quinoa, tamari seed mix, avocado, nuts, herbs and kimchi or stay sweet with bircher muesli, chia, kiwi, blueberries, banana and carob syrup. Try deconstructed sushi, deep-fried tofu broth or spicy Korean bibimbap (mixed rice with meat and chilli sauces) bowls on the lunch menu. Best of all, they’re colourful, which makes them on trend and photo friendly.

3. Black magic
Cooking with charcoal

Charcoal is one of the big sensations to hit 2018. Activated charcoal, which is made from coconut, peat, wood or charcoal is being added to everything from hang-over cures to burger buns with ink black results. Check out the matt black buns in Martin Nordin’s new book, Green Burgers (Hardie Grant Books) or Pressed Juice’s Black Lemonade. But when it comes to flavour, who can go past the charry edge of a barbecued dry-aged steak? Whether it’s a black-spotted wood-fired pizza or the cracked, blackened skin of a fire-roasted eggplant, Chefs are going all out to add black to their menu. Fire and smoke enhance almost any food, from rump to raspberries, cauli and cabbage. Add fruit wood, such as grape vines or mulberry, to a charcoal fire for flavour says fire wunderkind, Lennox Hastie, from Sydney’s Firedoor.

4. Plant life
Veggie barbecue

Since when did the steak wave its goodbye to the animal kingdom and sashay over to mix it up with plant life? Vegetables masquerading as steak are all over town: cauliflower and mushrooms are being treated like T-bones and beetroot is being pounded to look like a rare beefsteak. Whole heads of cauli, bunches of sweet carrots, and even lettuce wedges, are undergoing the chargrill treatment, or, as on the menu at Manly’s Papi Chulo, being matched with a robust Romesco sauce and showered with shaved parmesan. This new meaty approach to the humble veg offers a world of taste adventures and some great cost efficiencies. Best of all, it’s good for us. Plants are enlivening the elixir world too: bush botanicals have made their way into tonics that promise to refresh and revive and make good mixers too.

5. Service with a smile
Service with a smile

More a hope than a trend (just yet), good service is an undeniable asset in any café and we’d like to see more of it in 2018. The combo of great service, outstanding coffee and good food easily edges out a café that only delivers on two of the three secrets to success. “You have to tick off good food, service, ambience and price,” says Unilever Food Solutions Executive Chef Mark Baylis. “But it’s service that makes for a great eating out experience.” Staff who are professional and who know how to be friendly but not over-familiar are like gold. “Your staff should reflect your business and their look should fit, whether it’s a tattooed and bearded barista or a uniform of shorts and t-shirts,” says Mark. “Above all, nothing that the customers wants should be a problem.”